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2023-10-18| R&D

AI-Powered Pain Recognition System Revolutionizes Patient Care

by Sinead Huang
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An automated pain recognition system utilizing artificial intelligence (AI) is emerging as a promising approach to identify and manage pain in patients undergoing surgery, according to research unveiled at the ANESTHESIOLOGY 2023 annual meeting. This innovative system marks a significant shift from conventional subjective methods of pain assessment to a more accurate and objective approach.

Related article: Revolutionary Technology Aims to Detect and Prevent Dementia and Mental Illness

Addressing Biases in Pain Assessment

Currently, pain assessment predominantly relies on subjective methods, such as the Visual Analog Scale (VAS), where patients self-report their pain, and the Critical-Care Pain Observation Tool (CPOT), where healthcare professionals evaluate patients’ pain based on observable cues like facial expressions, body movement, and muscle tension. 

Developed by researchers at the University of California San Diego (UCSD), the new automated pain recognition system combines two forms of AI: computer vision, which provides the computer with the capability to “see,” and deep learning, enabling it to interpret visual cues for pain assessment.

A Bridge to Unbiased Pain Detection

According to Timothy Heintz, B.S., lead author of the study and a fourth-year medical student at UCSD, traditional pain assessment tools can be influenced by racial and cultural biases, potentially leading to inadequate pain management and poorer health outcomes. The absence of continuous observable methods for pain detection in perioperative care prompted the development of this proof-of-concept AI model, offering the promise of real-time, unbiased pain detection.

The Path to Enhanced Patient Care

Efficient pain recognition and timely intervention have been proven to reduce hospital stays and mitigate long-term health conditions, such as chronic pain, anxiety, and depression. The research involved training the AI model with 143,293 facial images depicting 115 pain episodes and 159 non-pain episodes in 69 patients who underwent various elective surgical procedures. The system, equipped with computer vision and deep learning capabilities, identified distinct patterns in facial expressions and muscle activity, particularly in the eyebrows, lips, and nose.

In terms of accuracy, the AI-automated pain recognition system aligned with CPOT results 88% of the time and with VAS 66% of the time. While VAS can be influenced by emotional and behavioral factors, this AI system excels in identifying subtle cues that might elude human observers. If further validated, this technology has the potential to become an invaluable tool for physicians. For instance, the integration of cameras into surgical recovery rooms could enable the continuous assessment of patients’ pain, even for those who are unconscious, by capturing 15 images per second.

This not only offers enhanced patient care but also frees up nursing and healthcare staff from intermittent assessments, allowing them to focus on other critical aspects of patient care. The research team intends to incorporate additional variables, such as movement and sound, into the model. However, addressing privacy concerns is crucial to ensure that patient images remain confidential. The system’s scope could expand to include the monitoring of brain and muscle activity to assess unconscious patients, ushering in a new era of pain detection in the medical field.

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